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The Good Doctor on the Road to Cathay (Zhong Guo)
"Gnarled pines, wind-blown clouds, jutting mountain pinnacles, exiled scholars, horses, trailing willows. Moonlight on meandering rivers, fishermen, white cranes and mandarin ducks, the eerie screech of a gibbon, tiny white plum blossoms on twisted branches, a battered wooden boat moored in the distance. For more than a thousand years the poets in this book wandered a landscape that is vast and at the same time intimate, mysterious, and deeply familiar: the same mountain peaks, the same villages, the same river gorges. What makes this landscape feel so much like home?"
Andrew Schelling, Introduction to - The Clouds Should Know Me by Now: Buddhist Poet-Monks of China
Chia Tao (779-843)
PFO really is a community. I know you probably think this is some kind of wishful-thinking literary metaphor, like the ubiquitous and most often completely disingenuous, organizational "mission statement" …but it isn't.
Our community may be diffuse …it may be contentious, hell …even rancorous at times. Its members may come and go; some for a time, some forever, some regrettably and some with good riddance. But in the absence of heavy-handed editorial fascism, the true organic nature of this community's creative ethos will out, and that nature is precious.
Those of us in the PFO community who live within reasonable proximity to the Portland, Oregon nexus have, over time, informally developed an organic process for coming together in harmonic convergence in various configurations at unpredictable times to do "something" related to music and audio. Oh, and along with the music there is food …always there is food, and frequently there is alcohol, in moderation of course …well, except when we tried mightily to relieve Jonathan Tinn of Chambers Audio of his most impressive cache of old Armagnac. I know I probably should feel guilty about that, but somehow I am just far enough out on the MMPI psychopathology scale not to.
We jump into a car and motor miles to see someone's listening room, sometimes stopping along the way to enjoy a wonderful Oaxacan restaurant, or something Asian. We engage in numerous unprovoked listening and eating sessions; exciting hegiras into new technology, equipment and music; we embark on live music forays …and occasionally the august congregation comes together for work sessions where many hands are needed to put things together. We meet as friends, as family, and we celebrate our common joyous obsession.
It generally happens thusly: Someone calls everyone and arranges for a meeting somewhere. Those of us, who can and chose to, arrive in a completely unpredictable order at completely unpredictable times. No one knows for sure who is coming or when, until they actually arrive. We all stand around and talk loudly at each other, drink any readily available libations and vacuum up proffered snacks. Then, like herding cats, someone (most often our fearless leader David) gets us all headed roughly in the same direction.
When the music begins, all vestiges of social niceties pretty much evaporate. This is NOT a group a hapless manufacturer or distributor wants to encounter with his or her "not quite ready for prime time" product. We are all sociable, fun-loving and gentle sorts, until the music comes; then even a quick exchange of glances among us can be sufficient to reduce the overly-sensitive to crying like a girl. In our defense, we are just as quick to erupt into thunderous and excited accolades for the worthy. Either way, the truth will out. We are not for the faint of heart. Music, and its reproduction, is a full contact sport for this group.
David Robinson is the most civilized and gentile of all of us, and possessed of a near-preternatural patience. Jennifer Whitewolf-Crock and I are probably among the worst, with me being probably the most intemperately reactive. Jennifer will at least engage in long and detailed explanation for why something sounds wrong; I just fidget for a while, loudly insist it's broken, and go looking for sustenance, like a bad-tempered Kodiak hunting for grubs.
Thing is, collectively, I think we miss very little and are rarely off the beam. We are as quick to find things of merit as we are to identify deficiencies, and no one is pursuing an agenda. While we all have our idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, I have seen every one of us admit surprise when our preconceptions are contradicted by actual experience.
This is a VERY important point for framing this report of our most recent community adventure. When faced with that which contradicts our beliefs, we change our beliefs. And I have seen this happen enough times to describe it as reliable. Far from the too often encountered, intractable-ideologue audiophile, we genuinely are empirical and rational, not ideology-based.
Chinese Fine Audio
I will NOT engage in any cultural or racial discussion here. I don't care about prejudices and I don't want to hear about them. If you think you are wise enough to reduce six thousand years of history, 1.3 billion people, and one of the most complex and quickly evolving cultures and economies in the world into a few simple generalizations then you are an idiot and you need to wear a tin-foil hat, so we know who you are.1
I am old enough to have seen the tail-end of the initial re-industrialization of Japan, and the development of Taiwan and South Korea as emerging industrial economies. Even the oldest, more or less intact, civilization in the world (India) is also joining the industrialized world, with a vengeance.
I have watched their products evolve from objects of curiosity and derision to seriously competitive in the world markets. It is a pattern we know. At first products from developing countries are inexpensive but of relatively unsophisticated manufacture …and then gradually, if all goes well, the products get better and the prices go up. Cheap labor is replaced with skilled labor and improved standards of living for the workers, as worker pay increases. Workers who make more money then become the basis for an expanding consumer economy in the developing country, which is the foundation for a prosperous middle class that can house, feed and educate its young (something that is growing increasingly difficult in America).
The Chinese are neither new to high-end audio, nor to western audio-video markets. For some time they have been suppliers (often with non-specific monikers) of such things as vacuum tubes and components, right up to assembling final complete pieces. Do you really think that Magnavox or Kodak actually make DVD players? And are you so very sure you know where all of your high-priced brands are sourced? You might be surprised.
But, the only question that matters much in this context is …can the current, emerging technological base in China produce audio products with something to recommend them besides their low prices?
I remember with shock, the first Takamine guitar I ever played. In my world at that time, there were ONLY four guitars: Martin, Gibson, Guild and Fender. Other instruments were either errant curiosities (I liked the Rickenbacker for Byrds tunes, but I would never have actually bought one) or sub-standard substitutes. I remember thinking to myself; the danged thing was really good. It was disturbing.
But ...most of us have learned and grown as the world has rapidly changed in front of us, and slowly even the most provincial among us is beginning to recognize it is an increasingly small and interdependent place we all share.
We audiophiles have come to embrace Koetsu cartridges, Wavac amplifiers, Technics turntables, Audio Note, and Sony, and a host of other once exotic, now commonly known and often very high quality audio products. Yes, we have giggled at Joly, but you can't fault us for this; who can resist a good guffaw at a speaker with moogies?
The question is, have we reached a point where the jaded and way-too-often image conscious American audiophile is ready to seriously consider Chinese audio products on an equal footing with their more established counterparts?
Ping Gong, American distributor of Dussun and XLH (apparently XLH is an acronym for something that translates roughly into "Smart Little Monkey") wonders about this question. While he is fairly confident that the high value-to-cost characteristics of the Dussun integrated amplifiers will be sufficient to generate an enthusiastic consumer response, he is doubtful that America is ready for seriously perched, five-figure audio components from China. But, he is also a shrewd businessman, and he knows that things take time. His strategy for introducing these new products to the US is comprised of the following:
For the Dussun line, their entry-level product (which will street price out at around seven hundred dollars), is a charming, full-featured integrated (including headphone amp) with nary a spec of plastic or cheap folded metal in evidence; Heavy face plate, silky controls, featuring a meaty 100 watts of clean, grain-free and surprisingly sophisticated power. This thing is scary good for the money.
I hooked this little amp up to the ACI Sapphire XLs monitors (which are not particularly efficient) fed it with a DVD player, of all things (connected, of course, by Jena Labs, entry level wire) and the combination elicited smiles all around from the easily-turned-vicious PFO editorial group. This actually happened in my KITCHEN, with no rear or boundary wall reinforcement, on a kitchen counter, and it still sounded great! The more time I spend with this combination, the more I think this Dussun-ACI combo is an unfussy KILLER for minor ducats.
From here we go to their 150 watt hyper-class "A" integrated (V-6) (which will hit the street SUB-$2k) driving my Piaga P-10s and finally their flagship, a 250 watt hyper class "A" (V-8) capable of driving pretty much anything, and set to sell for well under three thousand dollars! To give you a rough idea how substantial these pieces are the 150 watt weighs in at over sixty pounds, and the 250 at just under a hundred!
These three integrated amplifiers all have excellent fit and finish, heavy, well executed cases, high quality internals, and each are quite free from common sonic defects we often find in even stratospherically priced solid-state gear. At their prospective price points they are going to be terribly difficult to beat.
I have been invited to use, abuse, take apart, and generally attempt to break the Dussan equipment, because they want to KNOW. They also want to know anything that can be used to make improvements. No ego here. No arrogance. I told them the remote sucked, and they are replacing it with a new model. Just like that. Try THAT with most manufacturers!
I plan to do a long-term review, mostly because I believe the greatest chronic concern for potential consumers of these nascent Chinese products will be reliability.
My primary personal interest here lies with products that allow new audiophiles (and those of more modest means) an affordable and practical real-world path into fine audio.
I know they sound great, and I know they are incredibly inexpensive. If they are reliable, then they become a viable solution. Remember, the real world still thinks that seven hundred dollars is a lot of money for an electronic component of any kind, that doesn't have a screen. We have to create a new generation of audiophiles and there is so much competition for their attention and for their dollars, the argument has to be persuasive.
In examining the Dussun stuff, one can easily see the construction quality but the prices are bound to cause suspicion. If it sounds great, looks great, and costs minor money, then something has to give; it must blow up in a couple of months. Well, we shall see. I am going to offer no quarter, and I will be farming the pieces out to others for their individual maltreatment. I will faithfully report any errant behavior.
But, the Dussun line is really not my intended focus here; it's just part of the context.
對知識的搜尋 (The Quest for Knowledge)
I want to write about making a new friend, cover the most recent PFO community audio adventure, AND address this question: Can/will American audiophiles seriously consider Chinese audio that is NOT inexpensive? I am intrigued with the question, because I too harbor my own preconceptions and biases.
So, we begin the journey, first with shock and horror (very common reactions humans have to unanticipated changes), and then to wisdom and understanding.
How IT happened
In my email exchanges with Ping setting up the three Dussun pieces, somehow I agreed to take on the XLH gear, really as an unconsidered after-thought. I looked briefly at their website and I was convinced there was some sort of translation error, because …apparently I would be receiving a GIGANTIC horn speaker and a stereo pair of six hundred watt mono blocks. The speakers retail for $50,000 and the monos $25,000. Absurd. And my belief there were translation errors was compounded by references on the site to the "humility rate" in the amplifier operating specs.
Well …and now we come to the most absurd part …and the part I should have paid the most attention to …Ping said the speaker shipping weight was well over 1000 lbs. Yes, boys and girls, 1,000 pounds. I knew it had to be incorrect, or I was simply in denial.
THEN, one rainy evening six monstrous shipping crates were offloaded into my garage by an intensely curious truck driver, who simply could not get his head around the fact that this was audio equipment from China. I am quite sure he put in an anonymous call to the Oberkommando des Heeres, uh, Office of Homeland Security, to relay his suspicion he had delivered mysterious weapons of mass destruction to a garage in rural Oregon.
Now when I say "monstrous shipping crates," it is not hyperbole. These six crates took up an entire half of a seriously oversized garage. Ping forewarned that four people were required to uncrate the equipment. Ultimately, it took six (well, someone had to document it for posterity!).
Ping flew out from Boston (wise choice, because we would have had to track him down and kill him if he hadn't). David Robinson, Michael and Jennifer Whitewolf-Crock, and their faithful companion Bob, also joined us.
Ping came first. Ping grew up in Shanghai, but he has been in the US for a long time. He lives in Boston with his wife and two children. By training, he is a software engineer.
We hit it off immediately. Articulate, warm and funny, I was immediately at ease. I was very impressed with how he kept his cool in what had to have been an extremely trying situation. As I said, we are not easy, and we were all definitely being our unedited selves that day.
So, he helped me dismantle my current main system lash up and then we basically took on re-setting my two ancillary systems. When David arrived the three of us (OK, the two of THEM) began to dismantle the XLH shipping crates, which turned out to be an absolute nightmare. From stripped screws to shattered wood, this was not fun.
In my defense, I had explained to them, both of them. See, I TOLD them. I said it many times, I DON'T HAVE TOOLS! (At one time, Sears had my picture up with a caption, "DO NOT SELL this man power tools!"
They apparently translated my repeated assertions into "Rick doesn't have a lathe, or "Rick doesn't have a drill press." However, they FULLY expected me to have things like a "mallet" and every size of socket wrench made in the world. And I don't. Well, next time they will know.
I have a theory; you never really know someone until you are with them in highly adverse circumstances. I give David my Homo Evolvus award. He is simply one of the most truly civilized people I have ever known. He made his way through this morass of frustratingly uncooperative stuff with unflappable calm and resolve. David is a rare combination of being both highly competent and truly decent.
Then Jennifer, Michael and Bob arrived, and we moved into high gear.
Words fail me, so we have pictures. Extracting those behemoth bottom cabinets from their monkey coffins and then moving them into my house was …well, let's just say I am just very relieved no one died.
The horns (yes, I said horns) were in pieces and had to be unbolted from their crates and completely assembled from the compression driver on, and THEN mounted on top of the main cabinets. Special thanks here to Michael who played a key role in uncovering an assembly misunderstanding, and got the horns put together correctly.
By six PM we had the main cabinets unpacked and in my listening room and the horns unpacked but not assembled. It was, of course, time to eat.
Remember, it is not a PFO outing without consuming mass quantities. We caravanned to an excellent Cantonese restaurant, which we promptly took over and basically ate everything on the menu, twice.
Back to work.
Eventually, and while turning my house into a wasteland, we had a rough install completed.
Oh, did I remember to tell you that nearly ALL of the screws on the amplifier shipping crates were stripped and had to be chiseled off? I am telling you, David is a saint.
The XLH Reference 1812 loudspeaker ( $50,000)
The speakers are, like, seven feet high (they look taller) and disconcertingly resemble a sound reinforcement PA stack for a Motley Crew concert. Seriously, there is a JBL sourced 18" woofer (very frequently found in sound reinforcement applications, albeit modified for this application), their super-tweeter and compression driver, and a proprietary big horn; twin ports large enough for my cats to explore!
The amps alone weigh almost 200lbs each, and had to be sat on the floor, 'cause my amp stands had not arrived yet.
The speakers are supposed to be 97dB SPL, 2.83V @1 meter efficient. 600 watts per channel, 97dB efficient. You do the math.
We were all exchanging glances that read, "Oh, this is going to be dreadful."
But it wasn't.
Now we were exchanging surprised looks.
JENA-Dandy to the Rescue
And then it got LOTS better. Jennifer Whitewolf-Crock was able to respond with élan to Ping's question, "Does wire really make that much difference?"
I am always amazed at what her stuff does in comparison with pretty much anything else out there. It took about twenty seconds for Ping to become a believer and to start talking about selling her cable in China.
In this gargantuan system Jena Labs cable and interconnects were the difference between a somewhat bleached, edgy presentation with a shallow and unfocused depth of field, and a rich, sweet, utterly transparent, layered and yummy deliciousness.
I managed to unscrupulously co-opt a set of her high-end (well, she does make two even more elaborate models) Pathfinder cables, intended for David's system. See what I mean about David? Who allows a subordinate to intercept a goody intended for the boss? A day or so later, I tossed them in between the monos and the 1812s. HORKY FENORKY! I am going to do a separate side bar on this statement-level product. Simply incredible!
I want to be serious here. At the mid to high end of her product range, the impact that Jennifer's cables make in an audio system is at least comparable to that of active components. Unless you are irrevocably hooked on the false zippy "detail" of the noise spuriae and itchy grit most cables impose, a two-minute listen will tell you everything I say is true about these cables. From the least to most expensive, Jena Labs cables get it right every time.
We tossed my reference BAT VK-51-SE preamplifier in (again with Jena Labs cable) and bang, there it was. As improbable as it was to all of us, here was this immense sound stage, layered deeply and richly, front to back, with a center many feet deep and rock solid. The six hundred watts threw those behemoths around like a Pomeranian's chew toy.
I need to be honest here.
Generally, I dislike horn speakers. Well, that's not exactly true; Generally, I can't remain in the same room with them. They honk, they beam, they drill, and they shout …they have phase irregularities that make me completely crazy. They are most frequently nasal enough to make Fran Drescher blush. In a word, they HONK!
We were, in a word, amazed.
Now I am cautioned by others that this speaker design must produce some irregularities in time alignment and honeycomb effects with significant toe-in (with its horizontally arrayed conventional mid-ranges and the compression driver for the horn placed well behind the plane of the rest of the drivers), but danged if I can hear it.
While I would like to have the last ten cycles the JBLs leave on the table (I wish they would have used the TAD 18" woofer on this speaker), I find very little about these speakers I don't like, other than the obvious, completely over the top, check-him-into-a-hospital, two live rhinoceri in the living room-WAF-factor, sheer bulk and incredibly bizarre appearance of them. Oh migawd, it takes a fork lift just to move them around on the carpet.
I expected to hate them. Instead, I like them about as well as any commercial speaker I have heard in recent memory and better than most, regardless of price point. And for me, because of my rather broad tastes in music, so far they have proven to be adroit performers, working equally well on simple acoustic music and heavy rock and big bands. It may be that, as with tubes and transistors, it is not so much the nature of the thing, but its execution that really matters.
Reference Recordings', Big Band Basie rocked very hard, startling dynamics …and the newly issued Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms, SACD (Thanks again, David) well ...the beginning of Money for Nothing almost made me pee myself. Holy Crap, Batman! When the intro starts to swell with the rapidly crescendo'ing drum work, I was actually pushed back in the seat, like the Maxell® guy. The new Godsmack SACD aptly defines what SACD does for alternative popular music styles.
I believe most audiophiles have little understanding of how much of the dynamic range actually present on their recordings is simply being shaved off without their awareness by a combination of underpowered amps, and over-hungry speakers. Just because an amp clips gracefully, doesn't mean it isn't clipping. The headroom in the XLH system will produce ppp to fff honestly.
But, it's all so big, no delicacy or speed, right? Say goodbye to subtlety? What about harmonic texture, horns can't do that? What about imaging, horns can't do that? That's what I always thought, and apparently I was wrong.
Single voice, single instrument, sweet and lightening quick; play something audiophile approved, such as Eva Cassidy doing, Fields of Gold, live, and there she is, that wonderful, sadly absent, hauntingly beautiful woman, as intimate and articulately displayed as I have ever heard her. Volumes of air surrounding her, the slightest nuance of her voice beautifully rendered. These monsters do delicate sweetness to a beguiling degree. There is an almost electrostatic presentation (fast and transparent) to the upper mid range and highs.
Now the amps - The XLH M-2000 monoblock amplifiers ($24,998 the pair)
These 180 pound monsters come with dedicated power leads, and wearing a beautifully designed and executed exterior, which could easily be mistaken for any of the high-priced spreads. I really like the big, chunky-clunky power, um, triangular turn-on thingies. Like the BAT VK-600SE, they too dim the house lights in their turn-on cycle.
In a recent introduction to this topic, I observed that a number of us believe there is a convergence occurring between tubed and solid-state amplifier designs. A world away, this convergence is also apparently happening.
The XLHs should be slow, coarse, brutish and thoroughly solid-state-y, and they aren't. While they are not the equal of the incomparable BAT VK-600SE in terms of harmonic richness and texture, they are absolutely world-class transparent and extremely neutral. They evidence no hint of grain or glare and, as you might reasonably surmise, offer up practically unlimited power resources.
I bet I could take them to any audio show, attribute them to any respected western manufacturer of extreme high-end audio electronics, and no one would question or doubt the assertion, either by appearance or performance.
For a new effort from a relatively unknown company, these amplifiers are nothing short of remarkable. They represent a noteworthy accomplishment and warrant serious recognition.
This system is seriously dangerous. I am not kidding about this. It should really have a warning label. It will play SO loud without obvious distortion that you can quickly find yourself in dangerous SPL territory and not know it.
Rooms twice the size of mine would probably be ideal and would probably reduce the danger somewhat.
Why the 600 watts? Because they will handle it, that's why. However, "handling it" may cause internal bleeding. I am very careful with this system, and even so, I find the volume creeping up.
And, of course, there is the incontrovertibly marriage-ending, lease-breaking, plea-for-help, SIZE of the bloody things. Arguably, this system would prefer a much larger space than I can provide, but let's face it, equally huge domestically manufactured speakers (Avalon, Wilson, Speakerlab, Martin-Logan, Genesis) often find their way into reviewer's listening rooms much smaller than mine. And, as I am doing that agonizing inch-at-a-time tweeking, the danged things are growing less obvious (but not once ounce smaller). I will NOT say disappearing, because it is simply not possible for speakers this huge to disappear, but it is very interesting how appearance and sound are so far apart.
Now, that being said, why am I trying to work out how to use the VK-600SE to power the mid and high taps, while I use the M-2000 monos on the bottom? Is it really because I want to experience 1800 watts through a highly efficient speaker? Well, of course it is. Duh!
Now we come to the real point of this polemic. I need help. Seriously. This is an official, public plea for help. I have gone over the edge. I have said my goodbyes to consensual reality and handed my ticket to the conductor on the Disoriented Express. I need an intervention. I am admitting I am powerless over what used to be a hobby, then an avocation and now a raging, tormenting, virulent and apparently progressive, illness.
And to add to my distress, I am dating (which at my age is so pitiful you can't even imagine unless you too are doing it) ...David wants me to write about it. I have to say, I love David like a brother, but in spite of being a sweet man he does have definite tendencies towards schadenfreude.
First of all, readers would never believe the stories, and second ...well, they are painful. My friends find, Frankenstein Barbie, Dirty Girl, Biker-Girl with Eye Patch Pimping her Evil Voodoo Wiccan Psycho Friend, Religious Cult Lady, and The Mistress of Darkness, hysterical, but that is because they only have to hear about them; I had to live them.
So, now I can't invite anyone to my house. It would be like having a prospective mate over for dinner and then introducing her to my eight-foot, blonde Burmese python (ala, Mail Order Wife) and wondering why she screams and runs out the door when I try to get her to feed it a live rat. I simply do not understand women.
Please note, I don't actually HAVE a python, but I might as well have! If I don't want to die alone, I need treatment. But, that is not your problem.
Can the Chinese design and manufacture fine audio at the top rung? Yes, apparently they can. Can the American audiophile seriously consider statement level equipment made in China? Well, you tell me.
1. Louis Black